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The Barkleys of Broadway is a good but not great musical from the strongest years of the Arthur Freed unit. Fred and Ginger are still sentimental favorites but their screen images have been changed to keep up with the times. Although they're still a pleasure to watch together, the original magic has been replaced with MGM formulas and Technicolor gloss.
Synopsis: Husband and wife musical comedy team Josh and Dinah Barkley (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) continually scrap, which leads their producer to introduce an understudy (Gale Robbins) into their show. That only makes Dinah all the more insecure, just as she is being pursued by a theatrical 'genius' Jacques Barredout (Jacques Francois) who flatters her with offers to play in serious drama. The Barkleys break up from the tension, leaving Josh on his own to find a way to get them back together again - with a little help from the team's composer and pal, Ezra Millar (Oscar Levant).
In The Barkleys of Broadway the great writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green don't even attempt the breezy fantasy of Astaire and Rogers' 1930s scripts. Either straight romance was considered too old-hat in post-war 1949 or everyone involved simply thought the stars were now too old to be dizzy lovers. This picture insists on being "about something," scoring lazy points from easy targets like theatrical pretension and misguided modern art. In place of inspired innocence, we get a cheerful blandness.
For Josh and Dinah, falling in love is something that happened 'years ago.' They're afflicted with Movie Marriage Sickness, squabbling over petty issues for no good reason. Their breakup is a mild upset, the presumed end to most relationships. The 'old' Fred and Ginger lived in a fantasy world that somehow dodged miseries like divorce; they seemed eternally in love with love itself. Here they're brought down to Earth to bicker about mundane matters.
The script not only makes Fred and Ginger imperfect, it does so on unequal terms. The original duo shared a proclivity to jump to conclusions and make assumptions about people, but now only the insecure Rogers has career doubts and questions her husband's sincerity. She believes everything bad she's told about him, while he always gives Rogers the benefit of the doubt. Astaire blames only himself and remains ever hopeful that she'll return, unselfishly providing career help along the way.
Comden and Green's big script contribution is a telephone game in which Josh Barkley pretends to be his estranged wife's new director, to give her useful performance advice in her new role as Sarah Bernhardt. The glimpse we see of Rogers in the Bernhardt role is pretty confusing. Her French doesn't sound bad but the scene is neither emotionally moving nor funny. Then again, she is playing opposite George Zucco ...
The script draws no verdict on bad theater except to paint the show's director as an oily wife-poacher. The only other cultural joke is a sloppy jab at modern art, with the clownish Hans Conreid as a charlatan painter. His surreal masterpiece is an eyesore that casts Dinah as a pancake in Josh's griddle pan.
Fred's special effects dance with some magic dancing shoes is the number that gets all the attention. The emotional standout is a reprise from Shall We Dance of the Gershwin standard They Can't Take That Away from Me. Director Charles Walters sets the stage for an RKO-style number that works just fine the old-fashioned way. The rest of the songs are by Harry Warren with lyrics by Ira Gershwin. An unwelcome element comes with two piano pieces by Oscar Levant, MGM's comedy relief man guaranteed to depress the Karma of any musical. Levant's cultured hypochondriac cynic is even less appealing than usual.
Warners' DVD of The Barkleys of Broadway is attractively transferred, a bit dark perhaps but with almost no damage and practically every shot in good color registration.
The docu featurette on this one is weaker than most, with young dancers offering nuggets of insight that make us wince. The reason Astaire's characters were so good was that he was a good actor! He and Ginger were a really special couple, honest! The more informed experts fill us in on all the particulars, but The Barkleys of Broadway just isn't as fascinating as they seem to think it is.
Extras include a trailer and a Droopy cartoon called Wags to Riches about a murderous battle for the little dog's inheritance. The featurette Annie was a Wonder is a charming Passing Parade short starring the loveable Kathleen Freeman as a Swedish immigrant house worker.
For more information about The Barkleys of Broadway, visit Warner Video. To order The Barkleys of Broadway, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson